February 18, 2005

AIDS & Africa: Just when you think it can't, just can't, get any worse

You really can't understand any problem in its totality. You can't grasp the complexities and the shifting sands which hold up reality. All you can hope for is sometimes to get a glimpse of various aspects of a problem. AIDS in Africa is like that. For other writings I've done about it, go and click on the AIDS category on the sidebar.

Anyway, here's a wrinkle. Here's a new concern. After all the thought and writing about how AIDS is devastating sub-Saharan Africa, it never occurred to me that people would regard the widows and orphans as targets for theft. I extract from the article I read below:

Actually, the answer is simple: custom. Throughout sub-Saharan Africa the death of a father automatically entitles his side of the family to claim most, if not all, of the property he leaves behind, even if it leaves his survivors destitute.

In an era when AIDS is claiming about 2.3 million lives a year in sub-Saharan Africa - roughly 80,000 people last year in Malawi alone - disease and stubborn tradition have combined in a terrible synergy, robbing countless mothers and children not only of their loved ones but of everything they own.

The degree to which men control household property varies from country to country and tribe to tribe.

In matrilineal tribes, children are considered descendants of the mother, and the family typically lives in the mother's village. Should the husband die, the widow typically keeps the house and land, plus items judged to be women's essentials like pots, pans, kitchen utensils and buckets, according to studies by Women and Law in Southern Africa. Her in-laws collect the more valuable belongings, like bicycles, sewing machines, vehicles and furniture.

Many tribes are patrilineal, meaning children are considered the father's descendants and men are seen as the sole property owners in the family. If her husband dies, the wife may be allowed to stay in the couple's house - but, sometimes, only on condition that she marry one of her husband's relatives. If she wants to move, perhaps back to her own family, she typically leaves with nothing but the clothes on her back.

Or she may simply be driven out altogether. Increasingly, in-laws cite the possibility that a widow is infected with the AIDS virus as reason to confiscate her home.

There are laws on the books to protect widows from rapacious relatives, but they are rarely enforced, assuming even that the widow is aware of the legal protections:

Under Malawi law Mrs. Wyson was entitled to half or two-fifths of what her husband left behind. Her in-laws might even have been convicted of property grabbing under a 1998 amendment to the inheritance law that provides for a fine of up to $200 or five years in prison.

Legal centers and human rights advocates say such cases are ubiquitous in sub-Saharan Africa. In one 2001 study in Uganda financed by the United States Agency for International Development, 29 percent of widows said they had been victims of property grabbing. One in five teenage orphans said outsiders had seized their belonging after their parents had died.

Laws to protect the inheritance rights of widows and children are not enforced or are simply no match for the power of tradition, legal advocates say. Few widows know their rights, and fewer still are able to seek legal help, especially in countries like Malawi, where about 500 lawyers serve a population of 11 million.

"Even in families that are better off economically there is normally some sort of coercion or family pressure that forces women to give up their inheritance," said Ms. Scholz, of the housing rights center. Some in-laws threaten to invoke witchcraft if widows persist with their claims. Others simply make life unbearable.

When one widow in Zambia refused to marry her brother-in-law in order to keep her home, her in-laws turned her homestead into a cemetery, Ms. Scholz said in a telephone interview from Geneva. Sixteen graves now lace her property. A local judge recently ruled that the court had no jurisdiction to settle the dispute.

Still, more and more widows are putting up a fight. In Zambia, the police say they investigated 458 cases of property grabbing in 2003. In Malawi, the nonprofit Center for Advice, Education and Research counseled some 120 people on issues of inheritance, death benefits or property grabbing from last July to September, a 60 percent increase from the preceding three months.

I never suspected that even after death, the survivors would be cast out by their blood relatives. I reject the notion that mulitculturalism should prevent me from being judgmental about this. This is barbaric. It is corrupt. It is preying on the weak and the infirm and the children.

And I have to ask, why should we give any money to help people when their own families won't? In effect, we subsidize this practice if we pay for all new things for the survivors after their families denude them of everything, including the iron roof.

This has left me feeling very disheartened. And angry.

Posted by Random Penseur at February 18, 2005 09:34 AM

It makes me feel so helpless. :-(

Posted by: Amber at February 18, 2005 01:37 PM

I knew conditions for women and young girls were pretty poor, but I didn't know this was going on. I do agree with you; they shouldn't get money till this type of barbaric behaviour is amended.

Posted by: Rachel Ann at February 20, 2005 03:50 PM

That is positively inhumane. It's the way pack animals act.

Posted by: Jim at February 21, 2005 09:27 AM
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